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floodlineA natural disaster provokes emotional and ethical dilemmas for the characters in Kathryn Heyman’s new novel.

We each have our own floodline: that high watermark that represents the upper limits of our capacity to cope with the challenges life presents to us. Depending on our ability to swim, we rise above or are swamped by those challenges.

In her fifth novel, Floodline, award-winning Australian author Kathryn Heyman throws her characters into areas of moral and ethical turbidity that rise to the surface as the floodwaters ebb. Through Heyman’s skilful writing, we care if these people sink or swim, and feel for those charged with life and death decisions.

It was the true story of hospital staff having to make such decisions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that became the core of this novel, fleshed out by Heyman with explorations of the absence and presence of faith in God, human nature, parenting and acceptance.

In the opening pages, we meet nurse Gina Donaldson on duty in Ward 19 at Horneville’s main hospital, Roselands, its patients including the morbidly obese but cheerful Ned Hall. Gina’s life philosophy has been shaped by her childhood and her  ‘… useless father skulking off into the world after years of late-night drunken rants, and the mother, fat as a truck, spooning Valium onto her cereal …’ The hospital, isolated by the floodwaters, should be a place of safety, but when the power goes out it becomes a floating tomb.

In contrast, Mikey Brown, minister in the Nu Day religious movement, is highly motivated by the opportunity she’s been offered to counsel the people impacted by the flood; especially those involved in the Hornefest Mardi Gras, the ‘gay roadshow, dancing and shouting and kissing up and down the country and further’. Eight years earlier, her husband Scott Brown had gone to Horneville to do the church’s work; he returned a changed man and left the church and his family. Mikey and her two sons, Talent and Mustard Samaritan, set out with a trailer of care packages. Along the way they meet Donkey, a former dog trainer desperate to get to Horneville to find his daughter, whom he’d abandoned as a child. Eight-year-old Mustard, convinced his father is back there, has secret plans to look for him when they get to the flooded city; plans that literally land him in murky water.

Heyman examines evangelism through the lens of the Nu Day brand, with its logo of praying hands that when turned on its side resembles a rifle, PrayerRobics and ‘T-shirts with Christians get a second coming written in swirling letters’ on them. It’s a religion where the winners, not the meek, inherit the earth, and gays, according to Pastor Gary, head of the Nu Day church, stand against Jesus.

During the journey, and again in Horneville when she meets a gay person, Mikey begins to question whether it is God’s voice she is responding to:

But it wasn’t God she’d heard, rattling around in her brain. It never was. Even now, eight years later, it was him she heard when she was frightened, or lonely, or sad. Scott. Scott Brown, who abandoned God and did not wait to see his boys. Scott Brown, who had heaped burning coals in her heart and who was now, no doubt, burning in a pit of his own making.

Go, he said. And, once more, she couldn’t help but listen. Even now, after everything, she would go wherever he called.

In the hospital, as conditions worsen, the weight of decision-making comes down on the medical personnel, including chief-of-staff Jim Baker and new resident Dr Donna Hocking, ‘the blonde ponytailed baby of a thing’. Baker, a realist, orders the evacuations:

We have to make some decisions, that is all. That’s about the best we can do. I think we can agree that neonatal intensive gets evacuated first – am I right? Good. Pregnant women next, then … Those who can walk out, first. Those who can’t – get them out to the car parks and we can get them across with trucks for the most part. I’ve drawn up an evacuation order – can you pass that around. Donna? Any issues there? No? Now you’ll see I’ve noted at the bottom that anyone with a DNR order or any obvious major evacuation difficulties should be last.’

Heyman’s prose is highly successful in evoking the overwhelming sense of fatigue and desperation for those involved in a disaster situation:

Gina’s hands were tired. More than any other part of her. Behind her eyes there was the usual graininess after night shift, the usual dull ache beneath her tongue, but this time her hands felt tied together, laced with wire.

Her descriptions of the floodwaters and what they carry, as well as the growing stink that pervades the hospital as those who are left die, are convincingly nauseating: ‘The stench of shit filled the corridors, mixing with blood, sweat and increasingly, vomit’.

Heyman leans heavily on the biblical in this work, but carefully chooses the more familiar parables – including the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark, Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son, the twelve apostles at the Last Supper, Lot’s wife being turned to a pillar of salt and the parting of the waters – to tell the story. Mostly these work, but a couple of times, especially in the case of the metaphor of things parting, or the scene of a man named Michael rowing a table ashore, they fell somewhat flat.

There are also coincidences that some readers may find too contrived, but we know sometimes these do happen in the real world, and one of these coincidences led me to think more about another of Floodline’s themes – family.

Floodline is the first of Heyman’s novels I have read and I appreciated many of her descriptions. The book explores some very big topics in an accessible and, at just the right times, humorous way.

Kathryn Heyman Floodline Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 324pp $29.99

Robyne Young is a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction and blogs at robynewithane.wordpress.com

You can buy this book from Booktopia here or from Abbey’s here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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